As the sun rises and illuminates the jagged Sonoran Desert with rose-colored light, colorful hot-air balloons rise into the sky right along with it. This scene occurs seven days a week from September to May during Tucson Balloon Rides' one-hour sunrise floats. Soaring with the morning's easy wind currents, FAA-certified pilot Kevin Wilbur ferries passengers for 10 to 15 miles at altitudes between 500 and 4,000 feet over the cacti forests of Saguaro National Park West and the shrub-covered flatlands of Avra Valley. While gliding over the Tucson Mountains, he also points out important sites as well as deer, foxes, and coyotes. After a gentle touchdown, Captain Kevin and guests enjoy a champagne toast and brunch. If the voyage inspires anyone to become a hot-air-balloon pilot or a cloud, he can also help them earn their private or commercial pilot license with his training program.
The FAA-certified commercial pilots at the helm of Southern AZ Balloons have glided groups across Tucson for more than two decades. During aerial adventures, the luxurious, wind-blown aircraft float as low as the treetops and as high as 2,000 feet depending on conditions. Varying heights present extravagant photographic opportunities, including of mountain ranges and of Catalina. Finally, after traveling anywhere from four to 15 miles, balloons coast to a landing for celebratory champagne brunches.
When Randy Long and his family recently went on spring break, they didn't laze around on a beach staring at the sea. Instead, they trekked around the world to China. The choice of destination isn't surprising given Randy's extraordinarily adventurous spirit—the former travel agent has trotted the globe a few times, dog sledding in Alaska and scuba diving in Bermuda along the way.
Despite his eagerness to explore, Randy probably surprised even himself when he was caught by an unexpected wave of inspiration during a 1986 Rotary Club meeting in Illinois. When hot air balloonist Harold Lovelace spoke to the club, Randy was so transfixed that he immediately offered to buy one of Harold's balloons. By the end of the year, Randy had his pilot's license, was flying in the world's largest hot air balloon event, and became a pro at photo-bombing the portraits of landscape artists. Within five years, he sold his travel agency and set up shop in Arizona as a full-time balloon pilot.
Since founding Arizona Balloon Safaris, Randy has maintained a perfect flight record, successfully piloting more than 2,000 flights for more than 20,000 passengers (including Shakira and J.W. Marriott). His colorful balloons ride the Sonoran Desert's breezes, gently carrying passengers as far as seven miles while maintaining a feeling of near motionlessness. From any corner of the balloons' sturdy wicker baskets, people can scan all 360 degrees of the desert panorama without a single visual interruption. Whether skimming the tops of cacti or reaching the flight's 5,000-foot apex, groups will likely spot—and sometimes hear—deer, coyote, and jackrabbits during the 45-minute ride. Passengers can bring a camera to take pictures of these sights along the way. Upon landing, the chase crew welcomes groups back to Earth with celebratory glasses of champagne.
It begins with a flurry of activity. Balloon operators prepare for lift-off, checking equipment and tossing ropes as spectators wander the grounds, observing the action. And then it reaches a new level: dozens of balloons take flight at once, filling the crisp December dawn sky with brilliant blues, purples, oranges, and reds that rival the colors around them. The Arizona Balloon Classic's orbs then set off on an aerial hare-and-hound race, drawing cheers from below as onlookers snap pictures.
For one weekend each year, visitors gather on the grounds to snap pictures and watch the balloons inflate and lift-off outside the Gilbert Civic Center for the Classic––a three-day festival celebrating hot-air balloon flight and culture. But the fun doesn't end with the descent to earth. After sunset the tethered balloons begin to glow, lighting up for the DESERT GLOWS portion of the festivities. Attendees browse exhibits and feast on treats from a variety of vendors, and children play in the Family Fun Zone. Last, on Saturday evening, sparks give balloons a run for their money, springing through the sky in a stunning fireworks display.
At 3,000 feet up, when all you can hear is the wind, the landscape takes on a magical quality. Using brilliantly colored balloons, Arizona Balloon Rides imparts that magic to up to 16 passengers at a time. The wind propels them as they float along for 45–60 minutes, up to 5 linear miles. Even children as young as 7 years old can peer over the top of the basket to scan the woodlands and fields for jackrabbits scampering, cows chewing grass, coyotes suing roadrunners in small-claims court.